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Interviews

The Afghan Whigs' Greg Dulli Talks About 'In Spades', Prince, and the Critical Beat

Photo credit: Chris Cuffaro / courtesy of Big Hassle Media

Greg Dulli tells PopMatters that "nothing's excluded when it comes time to write a song... I am absolutely omnivorous."

"I'm as influenced by Arvo Pärt as I am by Sly Stone."
I.

In the '90s, the Afghan Whigs were like "Johnny Yen" from the first verse of Iggy Pop's "Lust for Life". On record and onstage, their music radiated sex and substance abuse like uranium. Now, there was always more to the band than that. Frontman Greg Dulli's hyper-masculine persona often undressed itself, flipping from purring come-ons to brutally honest confessions. Capable of an almost holy noir beauty, the Whigs fused Motown drama, Superfly-era funk, Led Zeppelin thump, and punk spirit into an instantly recognizable yet utterly original sound on albums like their 1994 breakthrough Gentlemen, and the 1996 masterpiece Black Love. In nearly every performance, they seemed to push themselves as far as they could go. So when the band called it quits in 2001, it wasn't entirely a surprise. It seemed like they'd burned through what they had to say.

Today the Afghan Whigs are like Iggy Pop's character in the second verse of "Lust for Life": tired of "sleeping on the sidewalk/ no more beating my brains…with the liquor and the drugs". That doesn't mean the intensity is gone. In fact, the Whigs' new album, In Spades, is as intense as it gets, but it's propelled by determination and adventurousness instead of self-destruction and self-loathing. Rather than stay home with the sonic combinations of the past that worked so well, the Whigs got out of the house on 2014's Do to the Beast. Their landscape has widened even more on In Spades. Sure, the foundational sounds are still present -- the ass-shaking rhythms, first of all -- but back in 1998 there's no way you would have heard the bursts of jazz vocals that open In Spades' first track "Birdland". Same goes for the ascension of "Toy Automatic". And while the foundational Whigs themes -- desire, love, loneliness, corruption, damnation -- are still kicking, they're complicated by memory, grief, and age.

At the center of this story is Greg Dulli: bandleader, singer, songwriter, guitar player -- for my money, his distinctive, agitated rhythm guitar parts are too often overlooked -- and, of course, the suave playboy (or the persona of one, at least) at the heart of the band's image. Casanova's still got game; just listen to "Demon in Profile" for your proof. But he's changed, too. Dulli's lyrics have become more allusive and pensive without losing a shred of their emotional and sensual urgency. His voice, including his falsetto, has never sounded richer. Dulli seems to be running on that second kind of "lust for life" Iggy Pop sang about, the kind that burns on a cleaner fuel so it can keep going, so it can keep discovering what life might be. As a result, the Afghan Whigs sound absolutely contemporary and vital.

So when it came time to speak with Dulli, I didn't want to dwell on the past, didn't want to talk about how great Black Love is, or how Usher got the Whigs to reunite in 2012. I wanted to talk about the here and now. On the heels of In Spades, these are the good ol' days.

With one major exception.

The day after my conversation with Dulli, Afghan Whigs guitarist Dave Rosser passed away following an intense battle with inoperable colon cancer. A New Orleans native, Rosser joined Dulli's post-Whigs band the Twilight Singers in 2006. He also played in the Gutter Twins, Dulli's side project with Mark Lanegan, and worked with musicians including Joseph Arthur and Ani DiFranco. Rosser played on 2014's Do to the Beast and the subsequent tour. He'd nearly finished his work on In Spades when he was diagnosed last autumn.

The Afghan Whigs put together two benefit concerts in late 2016, one in New Orleans, the other in L.A., to help pay for his medical expenses. When Rosser was unable to tour this year, the band didn't try to find someone to take his place. Dulli told me during our interview, "No one can do what Rosser does but Rosser."

Dulli posted a video clip on Twitter this past May that, for me, captures Rosser's musical contribution to the Afghan Whigs. It's just 20 seconds of him laying down an electric guitar overdub on In Spades' "Copernicus". About 50 seconds into the song, the verse is transitioning to the two-line chorus. Engineer Mike Napolitano cues Rosser, who drags his slide up the guitar's neck into a pinched yell. The slide dips, rises again, and slowly eases back down the frets until it resolves into snarling feedback. It's a simple part but it's got teeth and a nasty texture; it's understated but absolutely crucial to the drama of this moment in the song.

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Rosser reposted the video clip on his public Facebook page. "A great 'In Spades' memory," he wrote. "The day after I got home from the first surgery & diagnosis in October, I was so hungry to play guitar, I took the ferry, walked a mile to Mike Napolitano's place and laid overdubs for a few hours. The next day I was freakin' SORE. But oh so worth it!"

When I spoke with Dulli, he'd just returned from visiting Rosser in New Orleans. At one point, I asked how the songs from In Spades had changed during the band's brief European tour in late May and early June. After replying that they'd sped up, "As soon you get on stage, everything is faster, Dulli added, "And certainly we've had to cover for the absence of Dave Rosser, which has been a heavy task. But he's spiritually with us every night."

How, I asked, had Dulli dealt with being on tour during such an emotional time?

"Luckily, in the context of the group, we're all Dave's brothers," Dulli said of the band comprised of guitarist Jon Skibic, multi-instrumentalist Rick Nelson, Patrick Keeler on drums, and bassist John Curley, the only other original member of the Whigs. "If I'm with any group of people who understands how I feel," Dulli said, "I'm with the ultimate group of people who understands how I feel. And we're all there for each other."

The Afghan Whigs will return to the road in August for a series of dates in Europe and then tour the US in September. Before any of that, they still plan to hit the studio in July to begin work on a new album. Asked if we've heard any of the new songs live, Dulli said no. "You don't wanna jam people with too much," he added. "A bunch of these songs on In Spades aren't even a year old yet. I'm trying to give them their space."

At the top of our conversation, I confessed that I'd taken this assignment partly so I could talk with Dulli about a musician we both love: Prince.

"Right on," he said. "Let's do it."

II.

Have you heard the new Purple Rain deluxe version?

I have not. I just saw that it came out but I haven't seen what's on it. I'm gonna be shocked if I don't already have what's on it.

I read that you were in high school when you first heard Prince. Do you remember what song first grabbed you?

I would bet money it was whatever the first single on 1999 was, either "1999" or "Little Red Corvette". That album totally blew my mind and I went to the tour. It was Prince, the Time, and Vanity 6. He had the bed on the third level. He took Jill Jones up there. He jacked off his guitar. Laser jizz came out. I remember telling my friend, "I'm gonna name my band Laser Jizz."

You never followed up on that? One of your early bands?

Never followed up on it. Still a great band name. But after that show I went back and bought Dirty Mind, Controversy, and the first two records. I was all-in at that point.

Can you put into words how Prince has influenced your songwriting, how you hear music, how you think about albums?

I'll tell you, once I saw him, and definitely after Purple Rain, I got incredibly serious about writing the best songs I could, learning my instrument, and being myself, you know? Truly following my own vibe and being an individual. That's what he taught me more than anything else. Trying to copy Prince… I mean, I have so many other influences and I mash them all together, just like I'm sure he did. Trying to be anything other than yourself, that's a futile measure. So that more than anything.

But he was the greatest performer I ever saw, one of the greatest guitar players I ever saw, one of the best onstage dancers I ever saw. He was the total package, the absolute total package. I never saw anyone who could do all of the things he did and do them all at once. My number one forever. I can't imagine anyone else knocking him out.

What do you think is the most underrated Prince song or overlooked album?

Parade is wildly underrated. Parade is top three for me. It's the most unhinged and unlike him, all the Euro influences that came through. So many great songs on there. "Do U Lie?" -- that's a very underrated song. "Anotherloverholenyohead". Everybody goes toward "Kiss", which is a great song, but not even my favorite song on that album.

"Girls and Boys", "Mountains", "New Position"...

"New Position" is sick. That is a fucking jam. They should play that at every DJ night, every night. The ballads on there, of course. And how he ultimately became Christopher Tracy…[he] probably foretold his own demise. In an elevator, no less.

Did his passing make you rethink anything about his music, or your own music, your life, your career?

I think of it as my livelihood, not as my career. It's something that I do because I have to do it. I have to write songs, I have to play music. It's who I am. So that stands alone. But it was like losing a family member to me. He was a part of my life from the first time I heard the first song and to this very day. Absolutely one of my favorite people who has ever lived.

I was trying to find my copy of the "Going to Town" extended EP with the live version where you start with "Housequake".

I'll go so far as to say the "Housequake" beat indirectly formed that song. It wasn't a wide river to cross to get from "Housequake" to "Going to Town".

You have an attention to groove that a lot of rock artists don't. In the way just the beat in "New Position" grabs you, there's a bunch of Whigs songs that are like that, including on the new record.

I love rhythm. I listen to a lot of hip-hop, I listen to a lot of R&B. It's gonna seep in there. I started out as a drummer.

Really.

Oh yeah, drums were my first instrument.

When you're writing a song, are you sitting down at a [drum] set at all?

Sometimes I make beats and sing along to them. There's several songs from the last couple records written that were written around beats. "I Am Fire" was. "Matamoros", "Parked Outside", "Arabian Heights", "Copernicus". The beat's incredibly important to me.

When you were younger, especially beginning with Up In It and Congregation, did you feel self-conscious about the influence of what was historically African-American music on the Whigs' sound? Did you ever catch shit for appropriating black music as a white dude?

We were hardly the first or last to do that. [laughter] So, you know, guilt free. I don't see color, I see inspiration. And certainly, the experience that any person or group of people has that informs a style or genre: mad respect for all people and their experiences and struggles through life. All people. But when you get to music, man, you are there to inspire yourself. I take that job very seriously. I'm as influenced by Arvo Pärt as I am by Sly Stone.

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